I ended up spending much more time at the Bookaroo festival than I’d planned to, and a large part of the reason was the venue, the immensely charming Sanskriti Anand Gram, on which more later (along with general photographs from the event). But for now, something about one of the more interesting sessions: the "London Jungle Book" workshop conducted by Bhajju Shyam and Stephen Guy in various two-hour slots over the course of the weekend.
Bhajju and Stephen don’t have a language in common and they met for the first time very recently, but the story that culminated in this workshop began six years ago when Bhajju, a highly regarded Gond artist from Bhopal, was invited to London to paint a mural for an Indian restaurant. His three-month stay in the city – without knowing a word of English – must have been a difficult time, but it led to the publication of the London Jungle Book, a collection of paintings drawn in the Gond style, in which he provided a distinct, whimsical perspective on life in London – combining aspects of the city that were new to him with things he could relate to. On the book’s cover, for instance, is a picture that fuses a rooster with the Big Ben clock-tower.
“I was fascinated by this big clock that told London-wallahs the time,” Bhajju told me (in Hindi) during the workshop today. “Where I come from we only have the rooster to give us a wake-up call, so it was natural to combine the two.” Another example is his painting of the “bus number 30” that he used to take to work every day. In a city where everything was alien, this bus was a rare constant; waiting for it at a fixed time each day, identifying it and hopping aboard it was a ritual that became a source of comfort for him, so he painted it as the body of a dog (“a creature that is warm and loyal”). He also depicted the London tube (the concept of an underground train system was completely new to him) as a motley group of snakes and earthworms, with a “King’s Cross” station sign and a musician thrown into the mix.
Anyway, to continue the story: Stephen Guy, who teaches theatre design at the Rose Bruford College in London, was given a copy of Bhajju’s book two years ago by Zubaan editor Anita Roy. I spoke with Stephen for a bit at the workshop and he said he found the paintings very inspiring. “I’d lived in London all my life and took it for granted, but Bhajju’s work showed me an unfamiliar dimension to the city,” he said, “That’s what great art and writing can do – make you rethink things, look at familiar things differently.”
Since Stephen works with ‘automata’ designs – “art that derives its worth from being in motion rather than stationary” – he decided to give a new angle to Bhajju’s paintings. “I got my students to make large, mobile plywood representations of seven designs from the book,” he said, “thus introducing a mechanical theatre element to what began as Gond artistry.” Thus Bhajju’s painting of London’s multi-tasking women depicted as the many-limbed goddess Kali became a three-dimensional figure where the hands could be made to move around by turning a handle or pressing a lever. As could the snakes of the London Underground. (If you enlarge the photo below, you can make out some of Bhajju’s paintings as they appear in the book – including the dog/bus and the Kali one – as well as two photographs of the plywood figures created by Stephen’s students in Rose Bruford.)
At the Bookaroo workshop Bhajju and Stephen have been showing children how to make automata figures themed on the book, using cardboard boxes, wires, paper glasses, bottle caps and other trinkets as raw material. (Incidentally the photo of Bhajju near the top of this post shows him next to a cardboard version of “bus number 30 as a dog”, with the dog’s body made out of an air-conditioner box.) “Unfortunately crafts don’t seem to be a big part of the school system in India,” Stephen says, examining one of the kids’ creations, a miniature of a British Airways plane descending over the city of London, “there’s too much theory and not enough practice. But the children here are really enjoying themselves and they’re naturals too!”